Interesting news from the USAF

Two interesting bits of news came to my notice over the past few days.  Despite spending billions of dollars on the bloated, overpriced, underperforming F-35 Lightning II program, the US Air Force is still able to devote at least a few dollars to other needs, it seems.

First off, the USAF has invited Brazil’s Embraer to bring its EMB 314 Super Tucano counter-insurgency and light attack aircraft (shown below) to what it calls the ‘Light Attack Experiment‘, a weapons and tactics demonstration in New Mexico this August.

It’ll be joined by US company Textron’s Beechcraft AT-6B, a light attack variant of that company’s T-6 Texan II turboprop trainer (based on the Swiss Pilatus PC-9), and also Textron’s new Scorpion light attack and reconnaissance jet aircraft, which hasn’t yet been sold to any air force, but is attracting interest due to its low price and very low operating costs (compared to those of traditional strike aircraft).  I wouldn’t be surprised to see mainstream unmanned aircraft such as the USAF’s MQ-9 Reaper and (if inter-service rivalries can be overcome for long enough) the US Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle take part as well.

The USAF describes the experiment as follows:

“This is an evolution of the close air support experimentation effort which we have now broadened to include a variety of counter-land missions typical of extended operations since Desert Storm,” said Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition’s military deputy.

. . .

The Air Force will host the live-fly experiment to assess the capabilities of these off-the-shelf attack aircraft. Industry participants will participate with suitable aircraft, which will be flown by Air Force personnel in scenarios designed to highlight aspects of various combat missions, such as close air support, armed reconnaissance, combat search and rescue, and strike control and reconnaissance.

The live-fly experiment also includes the employment of weapons commonly used by other fighter/attack aircraft to demonstrate the capabilities of light attack aircraft for traditional counter-land missions.

“After 25 years of continuous combat operations, our Air Force is in more demand than ever,” said Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements. “Since we don’t expect deployment requirements to decrease, we have to look for innovative and affordable ways to meet capability demands in permissive environments while building and maintaining readiness to meet emerging threats in more contested environments.”

The live-fly experimentation will include a number of mission events including medium altitude basic day and night surface attack, precision munition surface attack, armed reconnaissance and close air support.

There’s more at the link.

I find this intriguing.  None of these aircraft can approach the A-10 Thunderbolt II in overall close air support capability;  but that aircraft is getting long in the tooth, and will need replacing in the medium term.  The USAF simply can’t afford to develop another A-10, given the amount it’s spending on the latest and greatest in fast, stealthy jets.  It has to find another approach.  Obviously, for well-defended environments, stealthy and/or fast jets will get the nod for the job, as will UAV’s when appropriate;  but for less contested environments, where the aircraft doesn’t have to worry about strong anti-air defenses, a light strike aircraft like those mentioned above might get the job done.  It’s in the same vein as armed trainers like the T-6 Texan after World War II (which bore the brunt of French close air support duties in Algeria, and Portugal’s colonial wars in Africa) and the Cessna A-37 Dragonfly, which was widely used by US allies.

Another report mentioned an aircraft we’ve met in these pages before, most recently last month:  General Atomics’ Avenger jet-powered UAV.  Strategy Page reports:

Meanwhile the air force has apparently settled on an eventual successor for the Predator. This is Avenger, which looks like a larger jet powered version of the Reaper … The Avenger is designed to fly high (up to 20,000 meters/60,000 feet) and cross oceans. Until 2009 the Avenger didn’t officially exist and was a “black” (secret) program. Avenger is, like Reaper, a combat UAV that will often carry weapons as well as sensors. The air force likes the ability to arm Avenger with a smart bomb, including the 900 kg (2,000 pound) GBU-34 penetrator version. Each Avenger costs over $15 million. The Avenger B would probably be a little larger and more expensive. The air force has not yet revealed their wish list of changes for Avenger B. A UAV like Avenger would require the same kind of EW equipment carried by manned warplanes.

Meanwhile all this attention to stealth for Avenger should be no surprise. The Avenger manufacturer, General Atomics, has a division devoted to building stealth features into aircraft. This includes the world’s largest indoor radar cross section testing facility. Despite the bomb bay, the Avenger is expected to be used primarily to carry ground surveillance radar, which could be mounted on the bottom of the aircraft in an aerodynamically smooth enclosure.

The U.S. Navy, and several air forces, are also looking at the Avenger as an ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft. The ability to carry a ton of sensors and stay in the air for twenty hours per sortie has a lot of appeal for an aircraft that is already stealthy and doesn’t carry a pilot. Moreover, the Avenger can perform ELINT missions entirely autonomously, making it more difficult to detect.

Again, more at the link.

This fits in with my earlier speculation, and answers a number of intriguing questions.  If the USAF’s drone fleet moves to the much faster, much higher-flying Avenger, it’s less likely to be used for close air support (although that remains a useful mission for it, particularly if it can drop ‘smart’ bombs at standoff ranges that keep it out of sight of enemies – its arrival would be announced only by the explosion of its weapons).  If light strike aircraft can take on some of the duties currently fulfilled, in part, by the earlier Predator and Reaper drones, the Avenger will be freed to take on the demands of future combat in a less permissive air environment.  Its stealth characteristics will help it to survive in places where the older, slower models would be shot out of the sky.

All this looks very interesting for the future of the USAF.  I still think the F-35 program needs to be euthanized as quickly as possible, but that’s so politically ring-fenced it’s unlikely to happen.  (I suspect sheer economic pressure will eventually win out;  the F-35 is simply unaffordable in the numbers the USAF wants.)  These lower-cost options may take some of the budgetary pressure off the USAF and our allies, and open up new opportunities to get some of the service’s tasks done at a more affordable cost.



  1. I don't think unmanned aircraft are ready for CAS yet; the precision, adaptability, and accountability needed are not yet there. Unless I have missed something big, all of the fielded armed UAVs fire (relatively expensive and small) missiles like the Hellfire, oddball and specialized munitions like the Viper Strike, and a few with small iron bombs.

    Cas needs to be able to fire cannon, launch all of the above, and carry other weapons as well including rockets, larger guided weapons such as bombs, cluster weapons, stand off weapons, etc. It also needs the quick response of an on the scene pilot, not a controller miles away, and it would be really helpful to have a rough/ improvised/ unplanned runway ability that no large UAV yet has.
    For those reasons and more, at this point I believe the new CA plane will be manned. I think considering a turboprop is a good idea – I read one place that the AT-6 claims sub $1,000/ hour operating costs, which is incredibly low for a military plane.

  2. Huge differences in the payloads between the three planes. The Texan II has the smallest payload of 2000 lbs. That is not much fuel and ordinance. The Super Tucano is next at about 5000 lbs and the Scorpion tops out at 10,000 pounds of payload.

    It should be an interesting experiment.

  3. None of these planes approach the ability of the A-1 for loiter time or payload. This will be another one of the military acquisition shows.


  4. Not until the 1947 Key West Accord gets cancelled. Army needs something slower, low level, large ordnance cargo, armored, and with redundant systems. They got arms helps because USAF would not do CAS until their arms got wrung.

  5. As Anonymous/Dave said above, we need to dust off the designs for the A-1 Skyraider and bring it back. It will out perform any of those platforms where it counts: survivability, loiter time, payload, ease of training, navy-carrier approved, pilot/aviator friendly. The Spad can come in on the deck with 8 20 mm cannon or a wide variety of other munitions and it can be updated to use smart weapons. We have a platform that is proved in combat that is not the venerable Hawg, but works as a close second.

  6. So they want to ditch the Titanium Dragon and slot in a tarted up Beechcraft. [Adds popcorn to grocery list].

  7. I am not sure the AF will ever be mentally capable of providing close air support other than as a last ditch effort to keep the Army out of the air. Give CAS to the Army along with the A-10's and C-130 gunships. The AF has no interest in sub billion dollar aircraft…relieve them of that duty to keep the troops on the ground alive. indyjonesouthere

  8. All they had to do was spend a fraction of what they are wasting now, and just upgrade the A-10! It is still the best at what it does. Nothing can hold a candle to it.

    The same reason the B-52 is still around, though some of the stealth bombers are getting a little bit better.

  9. The main problem is the Air Force procurement process. Any new aircraft has to go through all the various divisions which add things. Remember the F-16? Supposed to be small and cheap, but they added a bigger radar, which made the airframe bigger, which required a bigger engine, fuel tanks ect. The C-5 was supposed to look more like a DC-10 and be all electric, but the division of the AF in charge of hydraulic required all the controls to have hydraulic back up which led to the giant hydraulic sump just forward of the vertical tail which always caused problems. The fighter mafia is completely uninterested in anything that doesn't have high mach numbers, like cargo and close-air support aircraft.

  10. The Textron Scorpion is reminiscent of the cancelled BD-10 homebuilt jet. Wonder if it was inspiration for the new design or simply a case of form following function.

  11. Typical USAF think. If a prop UAV is good then a jet powered UAV is much better. It get's there faster, can't linger, and requires more higher cost maintenance. Will it carry more weapons payload?

    +1 LL. The Sky Raider looks to be much more sturdy then the flock of replacement aircraft.


  12. Don't be so down on the JSF. The cost is down to ~80 million a copy and dropping, now that the control software limiters and training have been adjusted it is a lethal weapon up close, and it will soon have near peer targets.

    WRT building more A-10's, I doubt that is an option. I doubt Congress funded storing and maintaining the plans, jigs, skill-sets, etc. that the originals were built from. 🙁

  13. We can forget about new Hogs or Spads. The boys in charge have known about the gap in CAS for years and lack vision to address it. The JSF and advanced equipment have sucked the till dry and we are left with lightweight entries that will be able to hit a ground target but will not be able to do a good job of killing enemy combatants at close range. Of course that assumes that the ROE will allow immediate CAS instead of waiting for some off station cheese to OK the strike.

    The AF purchased the Learjet instead of the Citation because the time on the official leg length was marginally faster than the Citation. The real reason was because the individual making the decision didn't, at the end of the day while filling out the log book, want to look at the rudder pedals and see Cessna. Cessna offered a much better package including maintenance and training.

    This is just like the JPATS competition and you can bet the T-X competition will be exactly the same. Get out the popcorn.


  14. Yup. Nothing will change until the Army gets permission to buy and pilot subsonic ground attack aircraft.

    Apparently the Air Force just doesn't like any aircraft that doesn't have a B or an F in front of the model number.

  15. And back tracking to some turbo-prop is just silly. Maybe they can resurrect the P-47 while they are at it …

  16. It seems to me that an underlining basis for a lot of the USAF's thinking on aircraft selection is based on their perception of their pilots being some sort of high status or class of medieval knights. It does not require a 4+ year engineering degree to fly a plane. They started this bullshit to differentiate themselves from their fellow Army compatriots when they were part of our Army.

    This mindset colors their ideas on what constitutes a proper job for a pilot to engage in, which is one of their conflicts with CAS.

    Along with this mindset goes the eventual cost of putting that now expensively schooled person in an overly priced aircraft to try to kill some goat-herders who can bring him down with a 10 cent bullet. You end up with expensive standoff weapons, fired from expensive aircraft, piloted by an expensive person, supported by a large expensive support team, that this country cannot afford. The latest idea to protect this too important/expensive pilot is to replace him with an expensive UAV, that still requires all that expensive system set up to protect that pilot in the first place. Idiocy.

  17. FYI, the USAF/American taxpayer is building the Embraer Super Tucano in Jacksonville, FL right now. We give them to Afghanistan after training the pilots in Georgia. I can see the need for a cheap COIN plane as UAV supplement and I expect Beechcraft to win if the money is found…IF.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *